Transcendence (film review by Frank Ochieng).

Cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister (a close film-making collaborator with movie mastermind Christopher Nolan) decides to take on the realm of technology cynicism in the somnolent sci-fi techno-thriller ‘Transcendence’. There certainly has been attempts to provide shrewd commentary on the weary connection between man’s progressive manipulation and the technological tendencies that shape our societal sensibilities. However, ‘Transcendence’ feels structurally stiff and artificial without properly conveying its sentient messaging about cyberspace intrigue. Rather boorish and indifferent, Pfister’s entry wants so eagerly to dwell on the intellectual speculation and mysteries of techno-tampering that it forgets to fortify its high-concept story with a sense of free-spirited style and dramatic flexibility.

transcendenceIn Pfister’s big-budgeted feature directorial debut, he has the formidable tools to work with in the form of creative chameleon lead Johnny Depp as well as a solid supporting cast that includes distinguished Oscar-winning notable Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, the seasoned Cillian Murphy and Paul Bettany. Obviously, Pfister’s glorified cinematography endeavors under Nolan’s movie-making umbrella has produced such mind-bending gems as ‘Momento’, ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Inception’. So given these sturdy factors, why does ‘Transcendence’ come off as a scientific dud? In addition to Pfister pedestrian direction, first-time screenwriter Jack Peglan’s narrative wants to embrace its twisty and turbulent ideas but as a whole this sluggish production seemingly gets entangled in its own pseudo-cleverness.  

If the main selling point for ‘Transcendence’ is its enigmatic star Depp (who is still trying to live down his unflattering ‘The Lone Ranger’ association) as well as the film’s convoluted construction then this button-pushing caper is not going to compute. Brilliant married couple in Dr. Will Caster (Depp) and Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are at the center of this particular storm. Will is the brainy source for overseeing the top secret computer project ‘PINN’ (Physically Independent Neural Network). Unbeknownst to Will’s detriment is an anti-technology terrorist group that spout the panicky leanings of Science Fiction-related gloom-and-doom inevitability. Naturally, the Berkeley brainiac scientist Caster will pay a heavy price for developing PINN, an artificial intelligence mechanism meant to rival (actually supersede) the superiority of mankind.

Predictably, Will is gunned down by one of the aforementioned terrorists as his body is laced with a radiation bullet thus giving the poor guy a limited time to survive. Evelyn understandably is upset and does not want to lose her husband or his scientific gifts that can benefit their expanding world. She is determined to salvage Will’s life and puts her genius science mind to the test when she teams up with mutual friend/work colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) to transfer Will’s consciousness/brain matter into PINN’s sophisticated circuits to preserve his existence. Thus, Will is ironically the PINN computerised creation that he invented as an exceptional mortal man.

Although meant to be disturbing in its thought-provoking mode, the surgical experimentation of Will undergoing his human transformation to that of a masterful mechanical mechanism is realised in sheer ridiculousness. The imagery of Will’s shaved noggin being saturated with electrode plugs makes him look like a bloodshot Rastafarian that just drank battery fluid. The constant headshot of Will (before and after his cornrow hairdo zombie appearance) literally boxes in Depp’s one-note performance as the demanding soul that inhabits the now insufferable PINN to villainous proportions (NOTE: do not fault yourselves if PINN feels like a blatant rip-off from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 because you would NOT be in the wrong to invite such a comparison).

Wheelchair-bound or computer-bound Depp cannot transcend his limitations in TRANSCENDENCE.
Wheelchair-bound or computer-bound Depp cannot transcend his limitations in TRANSCENDENCE.

‘Transcendence’ yearns to be smart and involving in its semantics surrounding technological disillusionment and the human dependency on advanced devices that literally replace our interpersonal bonding with one another. Surprisingly, Pfister’s sci-fi fable (incidentally with an executive producing credit going to Nolan) never quite explores its cautionary commentary about emerging defiant technology communication as coherently as say Henry Alex Rubin’s vastly underrated 2012 film ‘Disconnect’ where there was a credible sense of detachment between man and man-made inventions. Basically, ‘Transcendence’ is predicated upon an implausible and elaborate gimmick that feels woefully stretched out in its imaginative completeness. Sure, it is a novel concept to question the wayward trending of technology especially in this current day and age of social networking and computerised co-dependency in the millennium age. However, Pfister squanders the opportunity to pinpoint any potent soulfulness into his dull examination of digits and downloading hysteria.

The ‘Transcendence’ enterprise methodically – in eye-rolling fashion, of course – starts to unravel as the clumsy conglomeration of Will’s potentially explosive PINN-activated motivations, the anti-tech terrorists (led by an impish Kate Mara) and the governmental brass all start to butt heads in this baseless ball of confusion. Subsequently, the audience instinctively sniffs out the restrictive confines that begins with Depp’s drowsy screen presence largely plastered on video screens as his ‘talking head’ alter ego Dr. Will Caster seems to wallow with cardboard conviction. Sadly, the supporting roles are not given much meat on their bones to chew neither.  Hall comes off a little more active as the grieving spouse that is determined to preserve her hubby’s prominence hence allowing the unpredictable scientific technology to prolong her emotional attachment to both her man and experimental science. Both Bettany and Mara are mere fillers for their breezy roles. Another Nolan mainstay in ‘The Dark Knight’s Freeman is on board to portray the familiar and wily ‘voice of reason’ scientific figurehead but even his veteran presence is undermined by the muddled mumbo-jumbo self-importance.

As a cyberspace spectacle with the talented touches in front and behind the camera for the Nolan-Pfister tandem, ‘Transcendence’ should have been infested with convincing amounts of personality and precision. Instead, it lingers on in disbelief with all the stability of a faulty hard drive in an antiquated IBM computer.

Transcendence (2014)

STARRING: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy and Cole Hauser

DIRECTED BY: Wally Pfister



RUNNING TIME: 1 hr. 58 mins.

DISTRIBUTED BY: Warner Bros. Pictures

CRITIC’S RATING: ** stars (out of 4 stars)


Frank Ochieng has contributed film reviews to SF Crowsnest off and on since 2003. He has been published in other various movie site venues throughout the years. Ochieng has been part of The Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and had written film reviews for The Boston Banner newspaper (USA) and frequently is a media/entertainment panelist on WBZ NewsRadio 1030 AM on "The Jordan Rich Show" in Boston, Massachusetts/USA.

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